Meet the Australian couple nurturing vulnerable kids through music and dance

They were once vulnerable kids in the suburbs of Nyamirambo, some of them are from broken families, and others had been robbed of their destinies by the grip of poverty.
But at Club Rafiki, these young boys and girls have found hope; they are resolute and are discovering their talents.

Music and dance is the connection. For over eight years, it has been a platform through which vulnerable children’s lives have been transformed.
At the club, children are enrolled into dance classes but also have access to a health clinic that focuses on HIV testing, pregnancy testing, counselling and information about reproductive health and birth control.

Information about sexual reproductive health is conveyed to them via music and dance, for the best way of getting attention from young people is through such platforms.
The important thing is that the club tries to have young people be sexual educators of their peers, and this is done through refresher courses availed alongside events organised in communities.

Zawadi Usanase is a teenage girl being raised by a single mother in the suburbs. At the age of 15, she is exposed to lures and with any slip-up, Usanase is prone to succumb to teenage pregnancy or worse, a sexually transmitted disease.

She has, however, been fortunate enough to access information on sexual reproductive health from the club, hence, well equipped to stick to the right path.
As a dancer, her time away from school is occupied with productivity, left with little space for possible adversities that haunt teenagers.

“When I am dancing, I am doing sports. I feel good about myself, I develop confidence because I can’t fail to stand in front of people and address them, for I am used to this and I have the exposure,” she says.

Jihad Niyonkuru is a member and dance trainer at the club. He joined the club when he was just 14 years old.  Niyonkuru is now 22 years old and his transformation from a frail young boy to a visionary man is nothing short of amazing.

He says he has grown in terms of skills and that so many other aspects of his life have changed ever since he joined the club eight years ago.

“It has been a journey; I grew up in a single-parent house hold and things were not easy. Mother had to hassle to feed me and my other two siblings, but this has changed since I can manage to fend for my needs, and this has lessened mum’s burden,” Niyonkuru shares.
He had dropped out of school but now, the money he makes from his choreography and dancing skills has enabled him to go back.

Niyonkuru has worked with a number of famous musicians in Rwanda, the likes of Meddy and Yvan Buravan. They have done a number of projects including videos and performing at concerts.

He also takes pride in the fact that his dancing skills enabled him to take part in the on-going East Africa’s Got Talent.

A number of young men and women at this centre have discovered a livelihood that they would otherwise only have dreamt of.
How it all started

David Wheen and his wife Mandy are the founders of this initiative. The couple first came to Rwanda in 2007 and have been visiting the country ever since.

As an immigration officer in Australia, Wheen had been recruited by the UN to come and work with the Rwandan Government to develop an immigration programme.

But during his stay in Rwanda, he fell in love with the country and its people so much that even when his work was done, he thought of doing something that would positively impact the lives of Rwandans.

His core settled for the young people, he had observed that they had a lot of time on their hands but didn’t have that many opportunities for social and recreation engagements.

And because they had seen how young people loved dance and music back home in Australia, the couple believed it would appeal to young Rwandans as well.

They thought it wise to open a dance school; a school that would use dance and music to connect with young people, particularly those coming from disadvantaged areas.

On top of dance lessons and sexual reproductive health education, young people at the club have English classes, mentoring classes for girls, access IT skills and some of them have a chance with connections to job prospects.
Children at the club have written a book and it’s impressive. And the girls’ programme on mental and reproductive health has been remarkable as well. And so far, what the club has managed to achieve has impressed the couple.

“We are so impressed, especially if we look at the change that has come about. We are impressed with what the club does and we want to continue supporting it,” Wheen says.
Mandy Wheen says seeing young people at Club Rafiki turn into the people they have become is heartening.

“We saw them as young dancers at the ages of 11 and 12 but now they are the leaders in some dance groups. Some of them are lead dancers in Kigali, these young people have matured and developed. It’s very heart-warming that they are one big family and it is such a joy,” she says.

Their work received a Queen’s Birthday Honours award. David says that though it was an honour to receive it, they didn’t deserve it, saying that they are the ones who get so much out of the work.

“We see the progress, the creativity and the ambition of Rwanda and we admire it. Yes, we can help them get funds and perhaps help them with a few ideas on how to do some things, but its Rwandans who do it, we have admiration of what they do, they are so embedded with their community,” he notes.
Their love for Rwanda

The couple admits that they are so impressed with what Rwanda achieves, noting that each time they come, they see progress.

“And it’s not only the physical progress that you see, but we see the children developing in their education, the economic development taking place and we always make it a point to go outside of Kigali when we come. For example, we went to Huye a couple of days ago and we have seen so many changes, the electricity and the buildings, Rwanda is a remarkable story of growth and prosperity and a stable security environment,” David says.

This is the couple’s last official trip but they cannot imagine not coming back.

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